16. On Mowing and Marriage and Trying to Be Like Jesus

There’s very little in this life that I like less than mowing grass. Reasons? Oh yeah, I got plenty:

    What a waste of time–I could be gardening, reading, writing, baking bread, washing dishes, mopping the kitchen floor…
    What a waste of gasoline and added pollution, when we could be growing food, or flowers, or sheep instead of grass…
    Lawn grass has no value whatsoever, unless one is playing golf on a golf course…
    Why would I want to push around a horribly noisy, smelly machine that could easily cut off my fingers, or my toes, or throw flying sticks or rocks at my head?
    Imagine sitting down on Friday evening to a glass of your favorite beverage and some appetizers and having your neighbor fire up their stinky, noise-polluting lawn mower. Right. Just imagine…

I could go on, but you get the idea.

Usually mowing the grass is the contractor husband’s job, and I don’t have to think about it. But he’s busy doing the roof while the sun shines. (July in Pennsylvania makes watching the Weather Channel unnecessary; we know what the forecast will be: 90 percent humidity and scattered thunderstorms.) And the grass has to be mowed when the sun is shining too. Plus, the tractor is broken. So I’m being the selfless servant and mowing the grass with the push mower.

Right. Not quite so selfless as one might think…

Today as I started mowing, silently congratulating myself on serving my busy husband, he came down off the roof and waved at me to stop. When I stopped, he bent down and raised the mower deck on me. “You’re cutting it too short,” he said. Then he disappeared back up onto the roof.

Excuse me? If I am cutting the grass, I will blimey well cut it at the height I want. The shorter the grass, the less it has to be mowed. I’d just as soon kill the wretched grass anyway. That’s the trouble with it; grass doesn’t die. Its roots live forever and come back to haunt you next year after you’ve planted a lovely flower bed there. But I digress.

I confess that I was sweaty, hot, and bothered. Muttering the whole time, two passes later, I stopped the mower and lowered the deck back to where it was. But that still didn’t make me feel any better. Here I was, unselfishly mowing the grass so he wouldn’t have to, and he comes to tell me I’m doing it wrong? What kind of ungrateful man is this anyway?

Oh wretch that I am…


I’ve heard enough sermons in my life to know that this is not what Jesus would do. And I’ve also heard enough John Dorean sermons to know that the goal of every Jesus lover is to grow and be more like him every day. Of course, we fail all the time, but that IS the goal…

So when I stopped to take a break and get a cool drink of water, I sat down on  the couch and picked up the book I’ve been reading. Sacred Marriage. (If you know this book, you may laugh here.)

I had a copy of this book once, but we were newly married and I ended up giving it away to someone before I read it, and I never got it back. Since then I’ve read sections of it and heard sermons from it, and I know the subtitle by heart: What if God Designed Marriage to Make Us Holy More than to Make Us Happy?; but I’ve never read it cover to cover.

Turns out, maybe I should have.

I always thought, yeah, yeah, I know what Gary Thomas is going to say. Die to your self. Respect your spouse. Love unconditionally.

And yes, that’s what he says. And yes, it’s hard. And, as Thomas says, none of that comes naturally to us.

But as I sat there reading Chapter Six,  “The Cleansing of Marriage: How Marriage Exposes Our Sin,” I knew. I knew that those words needed to penetrate my soul. Just as I need to die to my self a hundred, no, a thousand times a day, I also need to desire humility a hundred, no, a thousand times a day.

Of course, we always see our spouse’s sin — it’s so much easier to see other’s sins, isn’t it? Yes, this specifically refers to taking the log out of our own eye before we take the speck out of someone else’s eye (Matthew  7:3-5). Listen to this:

View marriage as an entryway into sanctification–as a relationship that will reveal your sinful behaviors and attitudes and give you the opportunity to address them before the Lord. But here’s the challenge: Don’t give in to the temptation to resent your partner as your own weaknesses are revealed. Correspondingly, give them the freedom and acceptance they need in order to face their own weaknesses as well. In this way, we can use marriage as a leg up, a piercing spiritual mirror, designed for our sanctification and growth in holiness.

I needed to re-read that sentence Don’t give in to the temptation to resent your partner as your own weaknesses are revealed. There it is–the basic sin of all sins: Pride. Lack of humility. Thinking that I know best, yet knowing in my heart and soul that I do not. It’s ugly, pride is. Later Gary Thomas quotes François  Fenélon who wrote: “…all the saints are convinced that sincere humility is the foundation of all virtues.”

To grow in holiness marriage must be understood as a spiritual discipline, Thomas says. “To do this,” he writes, “we must not enter marriage predominantly to be fulfilled, emotionally satisfied, or romantically charged, but rather to become more like Jesus Christ.”

There it is again…to become more like Jesus; to do that we must put on our robe of humility and not throw it off each time we get hot and bothered. And not only do I agree with Fenélon that humility is the foundation of all virtues, but can I suggest that pride just might be the foundation of all sin?

Today as I was reading an article about the need for us to feel awe before our holy God, I came across the term self-forgetfulness. How I long for it. The author, Jen Wilkin, cited research that suggests when humans feel awe they are better able to forget themselves and reach out to other people. And I started wondering: What else makes me put on self-forgetfulness?
Blue sky behind gray cloudsDoing something for someone else with no expectations. (Remember mowing the lawn? It went wrong because of my own expectation–that my husband would be pleased and thank me profusely for doing something I hated to do.)

Praying–talking to the Holy God of the Universe. Yes, that’s one that definitely gets the mind off oneself.

Thinking about Jesus–whether it is reading the Bible, listening to worship music, or just meditating on how weak and incompetent I am, and how strong and competent Jesus is for me.

Immerse yourself in something beautiful that reminds you to thank God for creating such beauty. It may be poetry, it may be nature, it may be a conversation with a loving friend…

So here we have: Go watch a sunset or the clouds or stand on a beach or a mountain or a hilltop; Make dinner for your neighbor; Read your favorite passage in God’s word and thank Him for it; Meditate on the strength of Jesus and your own shortcomings and feel awe that you are so loved; Be grateful.

As I read further in Sacred Marriage, this paragraph jumped out at me:

Don’t run from the struggles of marriage. Embrace them. Grow in them. Draw near to God because of them. Through them you will reflect more of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. And thank God that he has placed you in a situation where your spirit can be perfected.

And today, in the sermon I heard this: He loves us where we are at any given moment. Certainly He invites, encourages, challenges us to become more like Christ, but that becoming is not a prerequisite of His love. Can I get an Amen?

white clover

It’s time to mow the grass again…

The tractor is fixed. As the contractor husband took it for a spin to see how it was running, he said, “I’m not going to mow the grass short because there are lots of bees on the clover, and I don’t want to mow the flowers away.” Yes, he knows how much I like bees and clover…

I smiled to myself. Thank you God that you have placed me in a situation where my spirit can be perfected.

And thank you, God, that the tractor is fixed.


For further study, read Matthew 7:3-5

Questions to think about:

  • Think of the traits in your spouse that bug you to death; you know the ones that make you mutter to yourself Every. Time. (Surely I’m not the only one????) Ask God to help you see the good in them. Ask God for new eyes to see that they probably don’t do those things just to bug you….Ask God for forgiveness for your critical spirit. Ask God to bring to mind the things that you do that undoubtedly bug your spouse.
  • Look at Matthew 7:3-5. Last week we talked about Matthew 6:22-23 “The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are good, your whole body will be full of light.” How can we correlate and compare these two verses on eyes?
  • I read somewhere that it is not only seeing well, but perceiving and understanding well that makes the difference between being holy and being worldly. My trouble is I know what I’m supposed to do and how Jesus wants me to think, I just don’t have the self-discipline to do it. As Paul says, “Oh wretched man that I am…” (Romans 7:24-25) I particulary like this passage in the The Living Bible translation, here.
  • It seems the more I grow in my faith, the more I struggle with how unholy I really am. Can you think of any other verses that can comfort us on this?

4. The Sanding Queen: Taking off Layers of Gunk

We have officially started working on the kitchen. As in taking out walls (that was another chapter); but for the past few weekends, I’ve been sanding. Not just smoothing rough edges, but taking off 4 coats of paint and the original varnish of kitchen cabinets. Oh, did we dither (that’s another chapter too) about kitchen cabinets! They are so expensive, and I want white. The white cabinets that one can purchase at the big box stores are not wood: laminate, thermafoil, melamine, lacquer, acrylic–they have all sorts of fancy names and initials for what is really just plastic or junkboard. I’m a purist; I like real; I like old; I like authentic, and I wanted wood cabinets. The unfinished cabinets at Home Depot and Lowe’s are oak. It seemed a shame to buy oak cabinets and paint them white, so we haunted the Habitat for Humanity Restores and Construction Junction. It took several visits in all places–and we found some other cool stuff in the meantime–but one day we came upon Really. Ugly. Cabinets. They were so ugly, we almost passed them right by.

Looks like a square robot from The Flintstones to me…

But when we stopped and figured it out, they were almost a perfect fit for the sizes of cabinets that we needed. Straight out of the early fifties–made from sandable birch plywood all through, they weren’t quite the doors I wanted, but for $225 they will work. Since we saved so much money on cabinets, the plan now is to buy really expensive countertops!

So now I am the sanding queen. You know the song. Unfortunately the only words I know are the sanding queen, da da da da da, she’s the sanding queen, da da da da da da the sanding queen. I didn’t even know it was an Abba song until I saw Mamma Mia! with Meryl Streep. (In my defense, it probably came out in the late seventies, early eighties when I was busy with babies.)

My cabinet shop was on the back porch until this past weekend when the temperatures soared into the nineties, so I moved into the air conditioned comfort of the living room and contractor husband hooked up the sanders to a vacuum. It’s a complicated system of hoses and extension cords and duct tape, and they all get entangled with each other, but the dust is cut way down, and I can sometimes take off my mask.

Sanding is boring. The arm gets tired. The sander is loud. The vacuum is louder. The back starts to hurt. The mind wanders. There’s plenty of time for thinking, for praying, for counting blessings, for wondering, for comparing sanding to real life. Cleaning off layers of grime, old paint, and junk to expose the beautiful wood beneath. That’s what trying to live a holy life is like, isn’t it? Always we’re scraping off the gunk that the world leaves on us. Some of it’s been there for years–applied incorrectly, but still it sticks until we really try to scrape it off. And, oh boy, is it hard to get out of the corners! I’m thinking of the book I read last year called Somewhere More Holy by Tony Woodlief. It is some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever read; he talks about home being where the sacred and the mundane meet when we search for God in the small everyday things–like sanding, like cleaning, like taking something ugly and reclaiming it. Next weekend I’m going to be sanding again. And the week after. And the week after. I’m sure I’ll tire of it. I just have to keep remembering what the finished product will be. Beautiful. Free of gunk. As good as I can make it.

The trouble with all metaphors is that they break down at some point. And here is where this breaks down: In a faithful life of belief, we don’t do the sanding or cleaning or scraping off of gunk ourselves. God does it. And it’s sometimes painful, repetitive, boring…I’m reminded of how many times I don’t learn the same lesson. That gunk of the world is still stuck in my corners, and God must be just about at His wit’s end with me. Really, Carol? How many times have I tried to teach you that? And our best response is the same as blind Bartimaeus (Mark 10:46-48) and the tax collector (Luke 18:9-14) “Lord, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

But the best news is that Jesus will never give up on us no matter how many times we forget, or screw up, or just get tired. Even when we are not faithful, he is. Jesus was faithful when he went to the Cross for us; he was faithful when he taught the disciples the same lesson over and over; he is patient even when we are not. His love for us was and is deeply personal and indescribable, and we could never in an eternity pay him back. In return, we owe him honor and praise and obedience–not to earn his favor, but  to be thankful for his patience and faithfulness to us sinners.

The really hard question here is how do we become more holy? And of course, that question is fraught with paradoxes: We can’t try to become more holy to save ourselves; and we can’t pat ourselves on the back for the things we finally manage to get right; and we shouldn’t try to be holy just for holiness’ sake. So how do we clarify that desire to be holy to please the God who died so we could take on His righteousness? Obedience and conduct and love,  1 Peter tells us in verses 14 and 22 of chapter 1. Don’t be conformed to the world and your passions. (Paul tells us almost the same thing in Romans 12:2) Holiness is to be set apart–to be like Jesus, loving as He loved. Peter uses familial language here–invoking the love of God our Father– and calling us to be obedient to Him as we would to our parents; not to earn His favor, but to reflect Him, and love Him, and be thankful to Him for His mercy.

The same cabinet as above, sanded clean and repainted…

Every day we must give up our own will, our ambitions, our possessions, our pride–and confess our sins–so Christ will heal us anew. Only he can peel off the layers of dirt and sin to expose who we are really designed to be underneath. Everyone knows that if you don’t get all that old paint, varnish, and gunk off before you repaint, the job will be botched and the piece ruined. Are we willing to undergo the pain of the peeling and burnishing of our souls to be ultimately refined and made holy by God? Jesus went to the Cross for us, are we brave and courageous enough to be reclaimed by Christ?


For Further Study, Read 1 Peter 1:13-25

Questions to think about:

  • The other common metaphor for God cleansing our sins is peeling an onion. When each layer is peeled off, there is another layer of sin. And tears. Like sanding off layers of paint and varnish to expose the beautiful wood underneath, sanding off the layers of sin involves patience and sometimes feeling as if you can’t breathe. It also involves fresh coats of varnish or paint to protect that clean precious wood. What steps can we take for protection against our most common sins?
  • Verse 15 in 1 Peter reads, “…but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct….” Sometimes, many times, I just feel as if holiness is something that totally eludes me and that I am making no progress toward a holy life. Is there a cure for this? Surely, I am not the only one who feels this way; what do you do?
  • Here’s a paperwork assignment: Read the 1 Peter section of Chapter 1 above (entitled Be Holy) and write down all the concrete ways he gives us to help us in becoming holy. The section of Ephesians 4 & 5 — Living as Children of Light or Instructions for Christian Living–also gives us concrete ways of life to adopt for holiness. Check those out again, too.
  • Another thought — my go-to remembrance verse is in this section too: “…knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ…” (1 Peter 1:18-19).